The Olympics always produces powerful storylines, and in recent days it has been no exception as mental health has been brought to the forefront of the conversation. American Simone Biles, arguably the world's best gymnast, caused a major stir by sitting out of the team final, prioritizing her mental health and safety.
The 24-year old has won a combined total of 30 Olympic and World Championship medals. At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, she won individual gold medals in all-around, vault, and floor; bronze in balance beam; and gold as part of the United States team.
Ahead of the team final, Biles wrote on Instagram: "I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn't affect me but damn sometimes it's hard hahaha! The Olympics is no joke!"
The stands are empty, athletes are without the support systems they may have travelled with, the past year has been full of unknowns, the list goes on and on. But we should not have to come up with any excuses for an individual to prioritize their mental health.
With the pressure on Biles to perform, she showed immense courage and strength to recognize the unseen challenges before her. She has also opened up about battling 'the twisties' since her Olympic start. As described in this article on 'How fear affects the mental health, physical safety of gymnasts' they are "a mysterious phenomenon – suddenly a gymnast is no longer able to do a twisting skill she's done thousands of times before. Your body just won't cooperate, your brain loses track of where you are in the air. You find out where the ground is when you slam into it." In a sport where one small misstep could lead to injury, it was not about underperforming, rather avoiding a more serious situation.
We see the sacrifices athletes make to compete, learning about their injuries afterward not to appear weak. When an athlete is hurt in competition, we offer support and wish them well in their recovery. It may be disappointing, but injury is a common occurrence in sport. So even if that pain suffered from mental health may not show on the outside, it doesn't mean it does not exist or should be dismissed.
Just as a team would, her teammates rallied around her and finished what they were there to do. Biles is one member of an incredible group of athletes who have trained hard together. She returned to support her team from the stands and celebrated their silver medal finish.
It is not the first time we've seen an athlete pull out of competition, nor the last. Another recent high-profile example is Naomi Osaki during the French Open then followed by Wimbledon. The number two female tennis player in the world spoke candidly about her refusal to participate in press conferences at the Open to protect her mental health. She subsequently pulled out of both competitions to focus on herself.
For Biles and Osaka, these are not things that just happen. Many variables contribute to these decisions. Because it came during some of the most high-profile competitions makes it more visible. The pressure these athletes face and the immense access we have to them through the media and social media adds another layer. Biles is the most decorated American gymnast. Osaka's achievements include four Grand Slams, rising to fame quickly after her 2018 defeat of Serena Williams at the US Open. Many athletes lose sight of why they are competing when it should be for themselves and the joy the sport brings them. They shouldn't owe us anything.
More and more athletes worldwide have opened up about their own struggles with mental health. This article from earlier this year shared the challenges Team Canada athletes have faced surrounding mental health and how COVID-19 has affected their mental wellbeing.
May these be the examples we need to help normalize the conversation. It should not be perceived as a weakness. Remember that this is bigger than sports and we'll see a larger impact from the leadership these athletes have shown; to say it's ok not to be ok and speak up to get help. In her latest Instagram post, Biles commented: "The outpouring love & support I've received has made me realize I'm more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before."